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Factory Shift: Manufacturers Struggle to Fill Highly Paid Jobs

August 14, 2006|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Daniel McGee's parents were apprehensive when their son turned his back on the four-year college degree they always assumed he would earn. They figured a bachelor's degree was the key to success in the modern economy, and their son was on track to earn one, with athletic honors, a 3.0 grade point average at his Minnesota high school and scholarships in hand.

But as McGee saw it, his future lay in the old-world industry of metalworking. And to succeed, he would have to do something that would shock many parents: turn down the scholarships and study machine-tool technology at a two-year technical college.

McGee, 21, realized what many American workers are missing: Manufacturing, long known for plant closings and layoffs, is now clamoring for workers to fill high-paying, skilled jobs. While millions of manufacturing jobs have been outsourced or automated out of existence during the past decade, many of the remaining jobs require higher skills and pay well -- $50,000 to $80,000 a year for workers with the necessary math, computer and mechanical abilities.

Some manufacturers are so desperate for workers who can program, run or repair the computers and robots that now dominate the factory floor that they are offering recruitment bonuses, relocation packages and other incentives more common to white-collar jobs.

In Ohio, American Micro Products Inc., an electrical parts maker, is offering $1,000 bonuses to workers who recruit technicians, and it is covering moving costs for the new employees. In San Antonio, Toyota cannot find enough qualified applicants for skilled positions at its new plant, even after the state sponsored a training program. In Fontana, California Steel Industries Inc. found it so hard to fill five mechanical and technical positions, some paying $28 an hour, that managers started paying employees to train for the unfilled jobs.

About 90% of manufacturers say they are having trouble filling skilled jobs such as machinists and technicians, according to a survey released in December by the National Assn. of Manufacturers, the leading industry group representing 12,000 manufacturers.

Of those manufacturers, 83% said the shortage of skilled workers affected their ability to serve customers. The shortfall has caught the attention of President Bush, who last week visited a metal parts maker in Green Bay, Wis., and noted that the company was unable to fill its orders because it couldn't find enough workers.

One of the biggest barriers to hiring young workers like McGee is manufacturing's reputation as dirty, low-paid and monotonous work. But McGee said he likes mechanical work -- he had worked at a bicycle shop during high school and in his father's garage workshop -- and was bored by the thought of liberal arts classes without real-world applications.

Now, after graduating from a private, Minneapolis-area high school, he is working as a paid apprentice at a local metal parts manufacturing firm, which also helped pay for his two-year technical training program at a community college.

"I find more value in on-the-job experience along with technical education experience" than in a four-year degree, McGee said. "I see a lot of people coming out of school with just the book knowledge and finding it hard to find a job."

At first, McGee's decision was tough for his parents to accept. Although Mike McGee, 49, is an academic dean at the community college his son attends, he still had visions of manufacturing work that involved "a blue-collar, tattoo on the arm, drink beer after the shift -- not the kind of career for my son."

What changed his mind was seeing his son hired by E.J. Ajax & Sons Inc., which makes metal brackets, latches and other parts, some of which go into household appliances and industrial machinery. In addition to tuition and a $14-an-hour apprenticeship, the company is providing McGee with health insurance, a 401(k) and, once his training is complete, a salary of $58,240 a year.

That's more than his college-educated brother earns at an advertising job that took him two years to find.

"There are good jobs, and good benefits attached to them," Mike McGee said of skilled manufacturing workers. "It isn't the monotonous stand-at-the-line work."

The average industrial technician earned $54,643 last year, according to California's Employment Development Department. By comparison, median earnings for all full-time U.S. workers last year were under $34,000. Yet surveys show American youth see manufacturing as a low-paying career track they would rather avoid.

In Contra Costa County -- home to a Dow Chemical plant that pays skilled workers up to $100,000, including overtime and bonuses -- community college students think skilled manufacturing jobs pay less than $55,000, according to a county development board survey this year. Some 75% said they had not considered applying for a manufacturing job.

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